‘It’s our future’ — South Florida teens mobilize as environmental activists

Miami Waterkeeper Junior Ambassador restoration project at Virginia Key Beach Park, where teenagers removed invasive plant species and picked up trash.
Miami Waterkeeper Junior Ambassador restoration project at Virginia Key Beach Park, where teenagers removed invasive plant species and picked up trash. Photo provided to the Miami Herald

Simone Schwedel is an environmental activist. She picks up trash on the beaches, educates others on the effects of climate change and once spoke in front of Coral Gables city commissioners to successfully convince them to ban plastic bags for good.

Oh, and she’s about to start seventh grade.

“When I was old enough to understand the threats of climate change, I wanted to do whatever I could in my power to stop it,” Simone, 12, of Coral Gables said. “We need to leave our world better than we originally found it.”

Simone is part of Miami Waterkeeper Junior Ambassador program, where young people learn how to monitor water quality, track marine debris through Biscayne Bay's currents and even snorkel to learn about identifying different species.

Miami Waterkeeper Junior Ambassador restoration project at Virginia Key Beach Park, where teenagers removed invasive plant species and picked up trash. Miami Waterkeeper Photo provided to the Miami Herald

But Miami Waterkeeper is just one of several Miami-area programs working to build a cohort of young environmental advocates.

Groups like Miami Waterkeeper’s Junior Ambassador program and the CLEO Institute’s Generation CLEO have pivoted a focus on younger generations, building programs that give future leaders a seat at the table.

“This young group is really starting to see how bad [climate change] is and what we are supposed to do. They’re asking the hard questions,” CLEO Institute founder Caroline Lewis said. “Is this group ready for climate action? It seems that they are.”

GenCLEO (or Generation CLEO) is a newly formed cohort of millennials at the nonprofit CLEO Institute who are trained to speak on climate change, attend summits and even start chapters of GenCLEO in local high schools. Each member is expected to pick a personal, climate change-related topic and develop their connection to that topic into a speech that could spark change.

Natalia Arias, 32, helped start GenCLEO, which rolled out its first programming just last October. She said they involve about 40 members — both high school students and young professionals — in the CLEO Speaker’s Network, which trains and prepares young people to make their advocacy public.

“We feel like young people have a lot of energy. We have that desire and that interest in getting involved, taking action,” she said. “It’s our present and it’s also our future.”

Chris Langdon, professor and chair of University of Miami’s Department of Marine Biology and Ecology, said his younger students tend to be much more attuned to environmental topics. Adults have a fear of change but for young people, mitigating the effects of global warming is “an easy sell.”

“I find them very energized about the topic and well-informed,” he said. “Young people don’t have the same baggage adults have.”

One rising Miami Palmetto Senior High School senior is involved with a GenCLEO team that is working to bring the program into more schools. Samantha Ouertani, 16, said GenCLEO has bolstered her future career goal to be an environmental scientist and that teenagers like her have the opportunity to make big change.

“I think in a way, kids listen to each other,” Samantha said. “I can talk to people and do presentations and people can be inspired by what they see around them.”

Samantha was also a Junior Ambassador with Miami Waterkeeper, and gave presentations to other students about why people should care about the water. Some of her goals for future work include implementing refillable water stations in schools and helping other children decrease their individual carbon footprints.

“Motivating others to do other things is big,” she said. “No one should be intimidated by any adult that doesn’t think climate change is real. We’re grown up enough to realize that this is a problem.”

Delaney Reynolds, a 17-year-old changemaker who, among hundreds of accomplishments, has given TEDx Talks, spoken to the General Assembly at the United Nations and written three children’s books, said her litany of success stories show that young people can have a big impact on the world.

“We can do more now than ever before,” said the Palmer Trinity School senior. “Kids become involved in all sorts of initiatives at a much younger age than has been the case historically and that certainly includes environmental topics.”

Delaney sits on the Rockefeller Foundation 100 Resilient Cities Committee for Miami-Dade County as the only youth, and helped work to pass the new law that requires all new homes in South Miami to install solar panels.

“Young people can have an impact,” Delaney said. “That certainly starts in one local community.”

Another teenage advocate, Jared Lennon, said his involvement with the Junior Ambassador program feeds his love for the environment and helped him realize his generation’s role in the movement.

Jared Lennon, 16, is a rising junior at Riviera Preparatory School. He said his involvement with the Miami Waterkeepers Junior Ambassador program made him love the environment. Miami Waterkeepers Photo provided to the Miami Herald

“Without the environment, there’s nothing,” said Jared, a rising junior at Riviera Preparatory School. “Eventually, one generation phases out and one takes their place. All the adults who made it their life’s work to preserve the environment are going to drop the ball and it’s going to be picked up again.”

Jared, 16, said that when he meets other children who don’t understand the importance of environmental consciousness, he asks them if they like the beach. Then he asks if they would like to take their own kids to the beach someday.

“If the answer is yes, I would recommend that they keep the water clean,” he said. “Trash doesn’t magically disappear.”

Because Jared grew up in Florida, he said he’s more aware of climate change-related issues than someone “in the Great Plains or something,” he said.

Jared stressed that it’s important for young people to get involved because the future depends on them. “The kids today are the adults of tomorrow.”